Time and time again, it's said that the best pair of headphones or speakers for mixing and mastering is the pair that you know the best. Whatever budget you set out with, you'll be able to get great mixdowns and masters once you familiarize yourself with your speakers or headphones.
That being said, there are important factors to take into consideration when choosing a pair of headphones. We’ll help clear these up so you can make mixing or mastering decisions with accuracy and get the results you're after.
When looking for a pair of headphones, there are some considerations and limitations we need to be aware of, such as the power needed to drive the headphones, the environment you will be in when using the headphones and the advantages or limitations of certain headphone technologies.
It may not be obvious, but headphones can be power-hungry devices which may require a more powerful headphone amp than those that come built into mobile phones or a laptop. Luckily, most home studios are already equipped with an audio interface and most if not all audio interfaces will have a built-in headphone amp.
For those of us who don't own an interface, or for those who prefer to be more mobile without carrying one around, there are still great, power-efficient headphone options out there.
When looking for headphones be sure to take the impedance (Rated in Ohms) into consideration. Some headphones will have variants of a model for this reason. The Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro for example has 3 different models (250ohm, 80ohm and 32ohm).
While you may hear a minor difference in clarity with a more powerful headphone, you will do more harm than good if you cannot power them properly, so check your audio interface or computer's output capability when purchasing new headphones. If your audio source is underpowered, your headphones may sound weak or will simply lack the volume needed to properly monitor your mixdown or master.
The environment you will be in when making mixing/mastering decisions is crucial. We know this to be true with speakers, as the room's acoustic treatment can make a significant impact on what we listen to, but why is this the case for headphones, where room acoustics are seemingly irrelevant?
Depending on what style of headphone you choose, they may or may not bleed sound into your room. The people around you may be able to hear what you're working on, and you might be able to hear them as well, which can be very distracting.
For the purpose of mixing and mastering, open back headphones are recommended for their greater sense of space and detail - they are generally more like speakers in this regard.
With open back models, sound will travel through the back of the headphones, whereas a closed back model will trap the sound inside and keep most external sound out. If you don't mind some noise-bleed in and out of your headphones, an open back pair will allow you to detect subtle details in your project, but if you are going to be in a noisy environment the compromise of a closed back headphone might make more sense for you.
As someone who does a lot of mixing and mastering in cafes and on the go, I choose the Audio Technica ATH-M50X because they sound great for the price and I can block out all the sound around me. Are they a perfect headphone? No, but in a noisy environment I believe they are one of the best options. A closed back headphone is also more versatile because they can be used for recording vocals without bleeding audio back into the microphone. Since this article is for mixing and mastering, we'll be focusing primarily on open back headphones, but there are great options for both.
For the purpose of studio use, we want to avoid active noise canceling technology as they are geared toward eliminating outside sounds - they are not focused on being accurate. Accuracy is the driving factor when picking headphones specific to mixing and mastering.
So, let us get into some recommendations! I would generally recommend a higher budget, but there are a few options in the lower end of the spectrum that are surprisingly capable.
Above I mentioned the ATH-M50x as a good all-rounder closed back headphone, and we will get into that pair soon. The M20x are a no frills, closed back headphone that are great as a first pair of studio headphones. This is the most affordable entry point to studio headphones that is still worth looking at.
These are very similar to the M50x, however Audio Technica have stripped away some of the premium features, like a detachable cable and the ability to fold down. They have also put a smaller speaker (driver) in each ear cup to create a much more affordable but worthy headphone.
Due to the smaller driver size the M20x will not produce the same bass response as pricier models (M30x, M40x, M50x). Since they are closed back, they are geared toward recording and production, however if you are on a budget and want a closed back headphone
Due to your listening environment, these might be the headphones for you. It is worth noting that the M30x are only $30 more at $99 and will produce more bass with its larger driver, if that is something you need.
Modeled after the classic AKG K 240s, the Presonus HD7 are a great entry level pair of semi-open back headphones at a great price. As they are semi-open, you won't get quite as much audio bleed from these as you will from a fully open back pair, however they will still bring you a lot of the detail and space you might find in higher end headphones.
AKG K 240 STUDIO **Price Range Top Pick**
The K 240 Studio has been an industry standard in studios for both recording and mixing since the 70s. For this reason they are highly recommended as many records you know and love were likely made with these, and almost every studio will have a pair that you can reference your mix on. Like the HD7s, these are a semi-open back headphone to give you a greater sense of dimension than a closed-back without the same audio bleed as a fully open pair. These are great for mixing in a home studio at a great price. They are also very light and comfortable on the head for long mixing or mastering sessions.
If this article was about the best all-purpose headphones, these would be my #1 recommendation. Their price-to-performance ratio outshines so many headphones on the market and they have done so for years. I am on my second pair, and only because I wore out the ear pads and headband from such heavy use.
The m50x is great for mixing and mastering, however they don't have quite the same level of detail as some of the other options because of their closed back nature. When you are trying to get clear separation of elements and an accurate perception of space in a mix down or master, a pair of open back headphones is still the way to go.
The reason you will see so many artists and engineers with a pair of ATH-M50Xs is for their versatility. If you're looking to DJ, mix, master, produce, record, watch a movie or immerse yourself in your favourite album, look no further.
Their bass response reaches very low in comparison to other headphones in the same range, so if you are making bass heavy music or working with deep sound effects, these might be for you. They are also quite easy to drive at 38 ohms, perfect for a minimal laptop set up.
If you are solely looking for the perfect mixing and mastering headphone, we have some other recommendations for you. Either way, these are becoming a new industry standard so they'll make a great part of any studio arsenal.
One final note: Audio Technica has an amazing warranty. The length of time differs from 1-3 years depending on which headphone you buy, but if anything happens in that time they will be happy to help you out.
BEYERDYNAMIC DT1990 PRO 250 OHM **Price Range Top Pick**
These are the first FULLY open back pair of headphones on this list - and some of the most popular. These are the most well priced pair of fully open back headphones you can get. While you may be able to get a bit more clarity and definition in some more expensive headphones, these will get you most of the way there for a fraction of the price. That being said, these are by no means a "budget" headphone and they are the first pair on this list that are specialized for mixing and mastering rather than doing a little bit of everything.
You won't get the same bass response out of these that you will in the ATH-M50x, but you will get a more accurate response across the entire frequency range. Again, be aware of your listening environment as outside noise will have no problem reaching your ear through the open back of this headphone, but that sacrifice is worth the clarity and space you will hear in return.
These are more difficult to drive at 250ohms, but most audio interfaces can handle this with ease. If you like the style of these but want to go with a closed back or semi open back pair, Beyerdynamic makes those as well, with the DT770 and DT880 models. For mixing and mastering specifically, DT990 PRO is the way to go.
While we had closed back options from Audio Technica before, this offering is fully open back and one of the most comfortable headphones I have worn. There is something magical about having such a light-weight headphone on while getting such clarity from them. These really feel like wearing a pair of speakers on your head (without the weight) - more than most headphones I have tried.
Because of their lightness and natural sound, without being too harsh, these are great for very long studio sessions. They are however quite difficult to drive at 470ohms, so once again, please check your output before picking these up.
something like the HD650, which is aimed toward home or hifi listening. The HD600 will reveal flaws, making them less "fun" but more accurate for cleaning up issues, perfect for mixing and mastering.
Some people have said that they lack a little bit in the low frequency range, so it might be worth having another pair of headphones on hand to check your bass range, but if you are looking to get very surgical with your mixes or masters, these would be a great addition to your set up.
AVANTONE AV-PLANAR **Price Range Top Pick**
The AV-PLANAR are a new and very interesting headphone in the mixing/mastering sphere that I had to include for a few reasons. While Planar headphones have been around for a while now, most of them have been geared toward the Audiophile community and less so toward music production or mixing/mastering.
In the past few years we have seen some new candidates, such as the lineup from Audeze, but most of their options are priced quite high. That's where this offering from Avantone gets exciting. With very few drawbacks of some of the higher end planar headphones the AV-PLANARs come in at $550 - less than half the cost of most of the others while still being built to last.
These are also quite easy to drive at 32ohms, however some reviews have said that they would benefit from a higher output. If you were to compare these to something like the LCD-XPRO from Audeze at more than double the price, you could easily pick up a great sounding audio interface or headphone amp, like the MOTU M2 for example, and still save some money. While they aren't cheap, they will get you a lot closer to the sound of speakers than most headphones thanks to their planar technology.
There is a bit of a jump to the next price bracket as most of the headphones in the $600-800 range are for broadcast or specialized use cases, rather than mixing and mastering. I think this just shows how far your money will go with modern headphone technology. If you are looking to get into the top tier options, the following headphones are some of your best bets!
The most affordable entry in the full size, open back Audeze range is the LCD2 Classic. These headphones brought the driver from their original LCD2 back after fans of the original headphone had voiced their preference for it over the second edition.
These headphones are a bit less surgical than the LCD-XPRO (outlined below), which means they may be preferred for longer sessions. For very detailed mixing and mastering work, the LCD-X Pro could be the way to go. That being said, the LCD2 Classic gets very close for $600 less than the X-Pro. Very experienced engineers will be able to pick out the difference, but if this is your first venture into the upper end of mixing and mastering headphones, you will be very happy with either option, and again, for longer mix sessions your ears may thank you.
Both of these models are some of the most detailed headphones I have had the pleasure of trying out, they will show you issues in your music that you never picked up on before. Although they are very large on the head, Audeze make one of the highest quality headphones out there from a design, engineering and build quality standpoint. They also happen to be relatively easy to drive at 70 Ohms.
AUDEZE LCDX PRO **Price Range Top Pick**
If you really want the experience of having a high end set of studio monitors strapped to your head, the LCDX PRO is the closest you can get. They are slightly brighter than the LCD2 Classic and will help you pick out pesky resonant frequencies in a mix or master with ease.
There isn't much else to say about these that I haven't already mentioned with the LCD2 Classic other than their power requirements. The LCDXPRO is surprisingly easy to drive at 20 ohms. You could plug these into a laptop and get great results, although at this range I would still recommend getting the cleanest audio source possible with an audio interface or headphone amp.
Within the high end headphone category, I believe these to be the sweet spot. You could get into the $4000-$6000 range, but for the sole purpose of mixing and mastering, these will likely be more accurate, as the ultra high end headphones are often tuned for hi-fi listening, to make music sound "sweeter" rather than highlight accuracy.
These headphones are used consistently by industry professionals for a reason, and we hope we made those reasons clear so that you can make an informed purchase.
As with all the gear we recommend, everyone's tastes and opinions will differ. If you have the chance to try something out before you buy something, please take that opportunity. What sounds great to one person may not translate to you.
All we can do is give you some experienced insight when making your own decision. Hopefully you’ll find an ideal headphone for your mixing and mastering needs at any budget!